Feature Writing: The Cowal Highland Gathering
Updated: Jan 22
Having held the role of the Event Manager for nearly 16 years for one of the largest Highland Gatherings in Europe, Malcolm Barclay still gets nervous as the three day event approaches year-on-year.
Malcolm said: “I’d thought as time went by it’d get easier – but it doesn’t. There is always a different set of challenges that we have never come up against before and it’s something you never see coming.”
After being accepted for the job at the end of 2004, Malcolm, was looking to make a fresh start in a different industry. The challenge of running an event steeped in history which celebrated its 125th year in 2019 is exactly what he needed. “I applied for the job, got it and have never looked back since.”
Using his existing skill set has aided Malcolm. “As the Event Manager, it’s my job to pull the various parts of the event together. Whether it’s the competitive element, the infrastructure side or the funding aspect, I make sure that everything is pulled together and hopefully make the Games happen at the end of the day.”
As a charity, the Cowal Highland Gathering Board is made up of 10 directors who sit as trustees and it’s their job to make sure that the event goes ahead and that it is managed appropriately. “It’s my job to put the agenda that is set by the board in place.”
The Gathering’s biggest source of income is through ticket sales. “Ticket sales for the three days make up our biggest income which is around 40%. We have a certain amount of money that we get from the local council (Argyll & Bute) which over the past few years has reduced on an annual basis. We apply for funding from Event Scotland and every year we have applied, we have been fortunate enough to receive funding. There is also competitor entry fees and companies who sponsor the event, such as The Scottish Salmon Company and Belhaven Brewery.” But trying to make a profit at the end of each year has proven to be tough. “We have a running cost of around £340,000 a year to stage the event and over the past few years we wash our face and have rarely made a profit. It’s obviously something we’re working hard to turn around but it’s difficult to make savings in a specific area.”
With such a large event, it doesn’t happen with a flick of a switch. There’s a lot planning and preparation involved in making the event happen. Around 60 volunteers are involved with a big number of them being scrutineers, judges or convenors. “At the end of each event we sit down and go through quite a lengthy debrief and the end result of that is a 20 – 30 page document. This is full of things that we think went well and also on areas on which we could adjust. It becomes my blueprint for the following year’s event and I refer to it quite a bit. It’s generally never major changes and it could just be moving a door on a marquee two metres to the left that eases congestion.”
The impact of the Games is massive with surveys on how much it contributes to the local community but also on a national level. “We normally have an economic survey done every year and every two to three years, we get an independent survey done. The most recent independent survey showed a 1.5m pounds economic benefit to the local area and to Scotland.”
So what is it about the event that attracts the 23,000 visitors? “It’s the ability to adapt and keeping the Games relevant which attracts people. The dancing is a major draw but also the history of the games and the sound of the pipe bands. I think it’s the constant evolution, not just now but over time, that has kept people coming every year. Bringing in family orientated activities has appealed to new people and also the addition of new events such as the 5K run and the cycling.”
They have come close on a few occasions but the event finally won the 2019 Best Cultural Event or Festival category in the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards. “It was amazing because we’ve been so close in the past couple of years. It was a really good feeling to tell everyone involved that we had done it and that all the hard work that everyone puts in is recognised.”
It’s not surprising in this part of the world where the gathering is held, it’s the weather that gets Malcolm the most nervous. “At the beginning of August, I’ll start checking the weather forecasts to roughly see what it would be like on the weekend.” So even after 125 years, it shows you can control the event, but not the weather.